I recently came across this thought-provoking description of Heaven and Hell:
Heaven is where the Police are British,
the Chefs are French, the Mechanics are German,
the Lovers are Italian and it’s all organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the Chefs are British, the mechanics are French,
the lovers are Swiss, the Police are German
and it’s all organized by the Italians.
The author of this is unknown, but it certainly comes from the mind of a European person who has a clear image of distinctive characteristics of people from the various countries. Even those of us from across the pond get the humor. But beyond the humor, there is also a bit of unfair caricature, which can easily slip into national attitudes of superiority and inferiority.
That happens with religions too. Frances Dyer and I shared a December 5 birthday, and we also shared a Christian faith. In her later years, she attended ABC more and more, serving through playing the piano and actively participating in services and fellowship groups. I visited her in her care facility a couple of months before her death, and we had a serendipitous conversation. She kind of apologized for never joining ABC and explained her reasons. It was not just that we didn’t accept her Methodist Church baby dry-cleaning (sprinkling) as baptism, but also, she grew up thinking of Baptists as nutty extremist fundamentalists, and it was hard to get over that. I realized that in the church where my boyhood faith was nurtured, those who were outside the fold included not only Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Catholics, but also, those nice folk in the Methodist Church up the street. They were well-meaning do-gooders, but they didn’t get the gospel right, so they were as lost as all the others. Thankfully, Frances and I had both outgrown our narrow prejudices. I went so far as to assure her that, in eternity, every December 5 I’d come over to the fence between Baptist Heaven and Methodist Heaven so we could exchange hilarious birthday cards. She cracked up.
We seem to be brought up with the presumption that Hell is the destiny of people who are not like us. It’s easier to think of people who speak another language, dress differently and follow strange religious practices as being outside of God’s circle of nearness. If people are unfamiliar to us, we assume they’re unfamiliar to God as well. We’re more understanding of and forgiving toward people who are like us, our friends and family members. We believe God must be, as well, and that he’ll find a way to get them into Heaven. We try to persuade ourselves that the only issue is theological, that a person believes in the way of salvation God has provided through Christ, but then we start talking about works and worth and lovableness. Our criteria for thinking of people as bound for Hell are really very subjective.
The great Christian classics include much more powerful images of Hell than of Heaven. Dante is famous for his epic poem The Inferno, but few people are aware that he also wrote The Paradisio, his far-less-persuasive picture of Heaven. John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost is in most English literature books, but none of them include his companion piece Paradise Regained. And Jonathan Edwards, the great American colonial preacher, is best known for his chilling sermon, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.
Over my forty-six years in ministry, I can’t say I’ve learned a lot more about Heaven and Hell, but I sure have come to understand a lot more about God. And I’d like to say that today MY GOD IS BIGGER THAN HEAVEN AND HELL.
There are two interesting passages that were written by Peter and Paul, apostles who were part of the believing community from the beginning. After having some time to digest and absorb Jesus’ teachings about Heaven and Hell, they wrote about their understanding. The first is from Peter:
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
This tells me that, whatever Hell turns out to be, God is determined to send as few people there as possible, not as many as possible.
The second passage is from Paul’s vision of the ultimate meaning of Christ’s Resurrection:
Christ has been raised from the dead, and he will reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed will be death. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the One who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20, 25-26, 28)
If, ultimately, God will be all in all, that makes me happy, because it means that, somehow, he’s dealt with that nasty Hell question once and for all.
— Pastor George Van Alstine